Question of the Month: October

Simon Purdue's picture

H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month series offers a forum for discussing the big questions surrounding research, pedagogy, and practice in the field of nationalism studies and the history of nationalism. Use the reply feature to join the conversation! Email Simon Purdue ( of Northeastern University if you’d like to propose a question of you own. If you need technical assistance with logging in and posting comments, please contact H-Net’s Help Desk (


Dear Subscribers,

Welcome to another edition of H-Nationalism's 'Question of the Month'. This month we are exploring a fascinating question of identity within nationalism. It is a question with many implications, both practical and theoretical, and we look forward to hearing your insights. Our question this month asks:

How have constructions of gender and national identity been linked? How has gender been mobilized by, for and against nationalist movements? Where does the future of research on these topics lie?

As always we look forward to your comments on this interesting question.

Best wishes.

Simon Purdue

Editor, H-Nationalism's Question of the Month

Dear All, 

I'll be fascinated to hear from scholars working on this topic, especially about their own work. A while back we had some fruitful discussions about Gender and Nationalism Studies and Why women are invisible in discussions about nationalism, with thanks to our board member Dr. Jill Vickers on both accounts, as well as to Dr. Alexander Maxwell on the first. I'll note that H-Nationalism has the capacity to take on additional editors, including book review editors, and that we could use some additional specialists working on the nexus of gender and nationalism studies. Feel free to email me at if interested in chatting on that front. FYI, any scholar interested in getting involved with our team of volunteer editors can always shoot me an email. 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior 

Constructions of gender and national identity have been strongly linked at key points in African history—for instance, during struggles for independence from European rule and during nation-building endeavors post-independence. In the decolonization period (mid/late 1950s-1960s), nationalist leaders encouraged women to join the struggle for independence by promising varied social and economic rights post-independence. Women were encouraged to focus on independence from European power as a common goal. Discourse—and images—about women as mothers of the nation were powerful mobilizing forces. As famed gender studies scholar Nira Yuval-Davis points out in her work Gender & Nation, women become the symbolic bearers of “the collectivity’s identity” because of societal beliefs that they possess the authentic voice of their culture (1997:45). As the “the authentic voice of their culture” women “reproduce nations, biologically, culturally and symbolically” (Yuval-Davis 1997:2). Thus, nationalist discourse emphasized the importance of women in supporting nationhood through their societal roles as mothers and cultural bearers. And women responded in large numbers, mobilizing their female counterparts in rural and urban places, across socioeconomic strata and ethnic groups, emphasizing a discourse of unity. As past works have shown, women even went as far as harassing men who refused to join the dominant nationalist parties, taunting their masculinity in varied ways (see for example Susan Geiger 1997 and Elizabeth Schmidt 2005).

At the same time, even as they played a crucial role in constructions of national identity in the fight for independence and the post-independence era, women experienced double oppression. Under European rule, they faced oppression by the male-dominated European administration and by local African men who they found to be complicit in supporting the larger administrative structure and of suppressing women. In her 1979 work, Fighting Two Colonialisms: Women in Guinea-Bissau, Stephanie Urdang illuminates this dynamic. Although the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde ideology integrated the emancipation of women into the total revolution and called on women to play an equal political, economic, and social role in both the armed struggle and construction of the new society, they held women responsible for liberating themselves within European rule. Such duality set the stage for women to use issues of gender to mobilize sub-nationalist movements or to air their grievances within a larger decolonization framework.

An incident during the wane of British rule in western Cameroon is likewise illustrative. Women of the Bamenda Grassfields heard rumors that the British administrators and the ruling political party, the Kamerun National Congress (KNC), sought to sell Kom land to Nigerian Igbos. Agriculture was normally women’s domain, and they turned to the practices of anlu, a centuries-old women’s organization, to fight back. Using tactics historically deployed against people who violated the Kom moral code, from 1958 to 1961 women interfered with burial rituals; hurled insults at men in public (women had the propensity to grab men’s rear ends as they walked by); stripped naked in public (knowing that local men consider the sight of the vagina in public to be a bad portent); demanded the closing of schools, courts, and markets; set up roadblocks; and destroyed and burned property. Their defiance of both traditional and British authorities in western Cameroon played a crucial role in the Kamerun National Democratic Party’s victory over the KNC in 1961, which brought a restoration of political order at the time of independence.

Based on research on gender and nationalism to date, it seems like the future of this research is in the larger framework of everyday behavior, conduct, and composure. Although much work has connected conduct and behavior to national identity in beauty pageants and race, gender, and cultural and national identity (e.g., Jean Allman, 2004; Lynn Thomas, 2006; Andrew Ivaska, 2002) researchers increasingly connect it to larger ideas about how the nation behaves, looks, and composes itself through women’s (and men’s) everyday actions and bodily movements. New works on this topic include Khartoum at Night Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan by Marie Grace Brown (2017) and Beauty Diplomacy: Embodying an Emerging Nation (2020) by Oluwakemi M. Balogun and my own recent work Gender, Separatist Politics, and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon (2019).

Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué cites in her remarks the case of Cameroonian women's use of Anlu, the collective mobilization of women and deployment of a ritual of censure and condemnation of the immoral use of authority. This is a phenomenon not limited to Cameroon, but an ancient and widespread practice that embodies the fundamental underlying values of African civilization: matrifocal morality. I detail this critical, though subjugated, archive of African women's history in my book, An Intimate Rebuke: Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa (Duke University Press, 2018).

For at least five centuries and throughout West Africa, women have made vivid appeal in ritual to a fundamental traditional religious concept: that woman bears innate spiritual power and embodies moral authority. The locus of this power is the female sex. In times of social calamity female elders strip naked, wielding branches or old pestles, dance “lewdly,” slapping their genitals and their breasts to curse the forces of evil. This constellation of paradigmatic gestures enacted as a collective rebuke constitutes the appeal to “Female Genital Power” (FGP). This power is not merely the reproductive capacity of women, nor does it allude to the office of motherhood, important as that has been in African society. Rather, “The Mothers” are post-menopausal women who, having surpassed the defining stage of sexual reproduction, are ambiguously gendered. Like primordial beings, their incarnate power resides in that gender doubleness. As the living embodiment of the ancestors, the Mother’s are guardians of the moral order; Their power is primary, paramount and potent.

The book, based on fieldwork that spans three decades in Côte d'Ivoire, also traces the remarkable continuity of the practice across West Africa. It makes a comparative study of cases that, until now, have largely been documented only as discrete instances of ritual, embedded in larger ethnographic studies as an obscure and poorly explicated religious rite, or as a particular kind of collective mobilization in the face of political oppression, and usually portrayed as women’s auxiliary contribution to nationalist movements. Putting original data, historical accounts and comparative material together in a new interpretive frame, the book illuminates this formidable tradition as the expression of a fundamental value underlying West African civilizations. I argue that FGP embodies “matrifocal morality,” an enduring religious construct and defining episteme of West African civilization.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, “Home and the ‘Unhomely’: the foundational nature of Female Genital Power,” situates the practice in the context of religious traditions in West Africa and shows it to function as a touchstone for the values that establish “home.” This section also discusses the progressive “unhoming” of women from their central place in originally matrifocal or matrilineal traditions, which is at the heart of the “unhomeliness” of the post-colonial condition today. It aims, among other things, to correct the predominant, persistent misconception that African women have everywhere and always been the victims of cultural oppression and male dominance, subservient and in perpetual servitude, mute and without agency. It also takes up the contested notion of "gender," and argues that the performances of "female genital power" are occasions in which African women elders assert their own self-defining “essentialist” identity as women of a particular kind.

Part II, “Worldliness: FGP in the Making of Ethnicity, Alliance and War in Côte d’Ivoire” argues that the principle that undergirds FGP is the founding knowledge and binding power on which West African civilizations were established. It shows how matrifocal morality operated as the basis for the consolidation of ethnic groups, and for alliances among them. This worldly function has salience under the pressure of globalization and the recent civil war, largely interpreted as an ethnic conflict. The first chapter in this part retraces the history of the settlement of newly forged societies in the early African frontier. It demonstrates that matrifocal morality was the founding knowledge and binding power that enabled that enabled disparate people on the African forest frontier to consolidate as distinct socio-political ethnicities, and to establish critical alliances among them.In the context of Côte d’Ivoire’s civil wars, in which ethnicity has been vilified as the source of a backwards-turning tribalism and the root of violence, this chapter returns to the original dynamics of ethnic politics as a guarantor of accountability. The second chapter in this part details how, although largely overlooked by journalists and scholars alike, the rhetorical work of the female elders who perform FGP has been just as critical among other “discursive tropes” at play in the political arena of the Ivoirian civil war. It reveals the women’s acts to be efforts to recollect the moral state. It presents the ritual of FGP as an eloquent commentary on power, offering a potentially rich new source of insight into the current plight of Africa.

Part III, “’Timeliness’: Urgent situations, emergency measures and emergent critiques,” addresses the timeliness of women’s interventions as emergency measures today. It shows that the women’s engagement of FGP in this post-colonial crisis are not nostalgic rehearsals of timeless “tradition,” but timely interventions that interrogate the present situation and demand accountability. It documents not only women’s victimization by targeted sexual violence during civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, but also their strategic response to the contemporary crisis through FGP. Chapter 7, “Memory, Memorialization and Morality” is perhaps most germane to the theme of the discussion, "Women and Nationalism." It shows that, in contrast with state amnesia and the culture of impunity, the demonstrations of the Mothers actively recollect ethical mandates for accountability and stir civil society. This chapter also shows how the state attempts to co-opt collective memory and control a public account of history through the physical monuments it erects or by featuring certain traditions as a “cultural heritage,” but also demonstrates why the women's vivid performances of FGP are not so easily contained, controlled or coopted. Rather, their embodied rebukes bring into focus the lost values of the fractured state.

FGP is an “intimate rebuke” not only in its reference to the private bodily parts reserved for the most personal acts, but also in that its embodied condemnation is no longer aimed at the injustices, indignities and violations of foreign colonials, but at the forces of African society and their own post-colonial states. Women’s naked confrontation with armed troops recalls to collective consciousness the moral source of legitimate authority, and puts into relief what is sorely lacking in the contemporary state.

I invite those of you interested in women, nationalism and their fight against the violence of the postcolonial state to read it.

- Laura S. Grillo (

Dear All,

I had a few reports that our notifications system skipped a few messages, so I wanted to make sure to alert you to our most recent comment on this thread, available here: I'd love to hear more about the fascinating work our subscribers are doing on the nexus of gender and nationalism. Many thanks to Drs. Mougoué and Grillo for writing in! 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior

One of the most effective ways of getting at the nature of historical identities arising out of the relationship between gender and nationalism is to look at exchanges taking place between those profoundly implicated in, but formally excluded from the nationalist and nation-building processes: women activists – those who articulated and recorded their aspirations for and frustrations with ongoing nationalist movements.

Exchanges between Irish and English nationalist feminists at the turn of the twentieth century are exemplary of this. For example, in July 1912, three English militant suffragists travelled to Ireland where, in what is now a renowned display of suffragette activism, they threw a small hatchet at Herbert Asquith, visiting British prime minister, and John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who were meeting to discuss the issue of Irish Home Rule. Later, they also set fire to Dublin’s Theatre Royal where Asquith was due to speak. The women were members of the British organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and they had not consulted Dublin-based militant suffragists, members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), before undertaking either action. The IWFL were militant and would normally have condoned the actions of their fellow feminist militants across the Irish Sea. However, the sheer disregard for the specific conditions of the intertwining nationalist and feminist movements in Ireland meant that they were angered rather than drawn into a feminist form of solidarity.

Different conceptualisations of the relationship between gender and nationalism stood at the centre of this dispute. Irish women in the anti-colonial nationalist campaign argued for their rights as citizens of an imagined free Irish nation by drawing on a history of an ancient Celtic brotherhood and sisterhood. As feminist nationalists, they worked to convince modern Irish men that Irish women should be equal partners in the nation-building process. However, English suffragists – those from the imperial centre – did not consider the delicate political situation in anti-colonial nationalist Ireland – one that was growing increasingly hostile and violent –when they performed militancy there. Not only did their incursions into a volatile Irish terrain cast light on the diverse relationships between different nationalisms and feminisms, they also worked to expose the powerful role that English nationalism played in suffrage politics across the United Kingdom (UK) at a time when nearly all the focus was on the disruptive influence of Irish nationalism (Crozier-De Rosa in Contemporary British History, 32/4, 2018).

Differing conceptions of the relationship between nationalisms and feminisms were not unique to the UK, they were also apparent across the British Empire. Here, across this vast territorial entity, gendered national identities manifested themselves in relation to, among other things, historic pasts (imagined or real), regional priorities, physical and emotional environments, and the various projects of the formation of new nationalisms arising out of imperial, colonial and anti-colonial politics. For example, white Australian women, who had been granted the right to vote in a newly federated Australia almost two decades before their peers in England and Ireland, struggled to fit themselves within an imperial-centred conception of womanhood that privileged the apolitical woman over the political. Their position as voters on matters of imperial importance (for example, on matters related to World War One when women in the imperial centre could not vote on this) elicited passionate, sometimes vitriolic, response from those in the British metropole. Why should women in a faraway colony – one whose parliament, a facetious English parliamentarian claimed, voted only on matters relevant to an overgrown sheep station – decide on issues that were relevant to the running of a vast and troublesome empire? Gendered nationalism was not equal everywhere was the implication.

This issue of passion – emotion – is of pivotal concern here because one exciting new research direction for future scholarship on the relationship between gender and national identity is exploring how feminist-nationalist entanglements laid bare the emotional politics of nation and also of empire.

In my work, particularly my 2018 book, Shame and the Anti-Feminist Backlash: Britain, Ireland and Australia (Routledge), I look at how nationalist women from separate but connected national sites understood and approached emotions and emotional concepts like shame and honour in order to protect and police their communities of patriotic womanhood at a time when radical feminists were proposing drastic changes to existing concepts of gendered citizenship – through proposing the model of the voting woman.

How did concerns about shame and honour merge with gender anxieties to produce a history of national and imperial emotional politics? Well, in Britain for example, women who opposed women getting the vote often cited the danger the woman voter represented to the honour of the nation when they made their impassioned pleas to suffragists to abandon their disruptive campaign for the female franchise. The shameless public woman, rivalling her country’s manhood for political power, shamed the nation through shaming its manhood (the shame and honour of the masculinised nation and its manhood being intertwined). More than that, she threatened the integrity of the British Empire whose pride knew no boundaries.

Irish feminists confronted a different emotional terrain. The shame of the colonised man was palpable. Did she compound that shame when begging his ever-virulent oppressor, the British man, for a vote in his British Parliament – that which ruled over Ireland and to which the colonised Irish man had already practised servility? Similarly, when she picked up a gun to help him in his quest for national autonomy, did she help him or cast a light on his inadequacy? Did she bring him a shameful reminder of his inability to free and protect his womanhood – or did she free him up from the limitations of British-imposed notions of separate spheres? What about her? Did her belief in an ancient ethnic past of shared male and female warrior status enable her to prove her honour? Or, given that it was out of synch with an Anglified, modernised and therefore ‘civilised’ notion of femininity, did this claim only bring her shame too?

Whatever the national differences, other questions of emotions and ethics abounded. Could women embody national pride and honour? Was this a prerequisite for having the right to exercise the national franchise – and, in the arena of international affairs, for representing the nation on the international stage?

In the battle over national pride and honour – within nations and aspiring nations across the entire British imperial spectrum – evolving and disputed understandings of gender and national identity were laid bare. Through investigating these, historians can expose the unevenness of the emotional politics of nation and empire. Emotions are everywhere in the political and social life of the nation. How can their history be harnessed to enlighten us about the gendered life of nationalism? How can understandings of the contested and ever-changing relationship between national identity and gender cast a light on the emotional life of the nation?

Sharon Crozier-De Rosa

I would approach the connections between gender and national identity with history and current politics. The historical side of the debate is being discussed on this page, which I follow with interest. As the African case illustrates, the orientalist literature from the 18th century, which justified Western intervention in the East through stereotypes, used the female body and status extensively. The "East" in the orientalist thinking encapsulated not only the East and South of continental Europe but also Eastern Europe. During the Greek secessionist movement in the early 19th century, the poets like James Skene and Lord Byron had portrayed Greece as a female figure, chained by the Ottomans, awaiting her British saviours.

The current politics recently feature extensive debates over the cultural nativity and gender, and these are almost always raised by the populist radical right camps. At least for two decades we see populist radical right parties turning to gender politics to defend their native differences than migrants and therefore justify their xenophobic policies. This "gender turn", I believe, should still be discussed with historical inquiries. The repudiations of migration with gender terms are preceded by social and (partially) intellectual history in at least three aspects:

1. From the 1960s the "New Right" movements in France and Germany (known as "La Nouvelel Droit" and "Die Neue Recht" arose on the argument that nations are culturally respective entities and should remain so to survive and flourish. Western cultures therefore should not be "diluted" with migration from the East. These movements today provide the intellectual background of "why the Western countries are culturally 'different' than migrants from Islamic countries". Very briefly, in the European context the extreme-right argument is that Muslim migrants persecute their women and therefore are culturally not compatible with the liberal cultures of Europe.

2. As the globalisation reaches the new phase of being a globally binding norm, rejecting migration on the grounds of economic security loses its cogency, and culturally opposing the outsiders largely remained a more credible option.

3. In addition to the developing far-right discourse, the rising terrorist assaults and other violent events allegedly motivated by the Islamic faith became an arsenal with which to stood against migration from the East.

In all these aspects the connections between gender and xenophobia extremely loom large. Finally, how populist radical right camps reject migration with gender are peculiar in their national contexts, especially in terms of how they represent national female images. For some examples, the extreme right in France with secular and republican discursive elements defending the modern French woman against the Muslim migrants, the Austrian case showing ethnic features extensively, the Italian far-right being more regionalist than unionist, and finally the Dutch politics defending the LGBTI rights against Islam and therefore visualising a broader gender perspective, should all be studied in their own contexts and with history.

Dear Subscribers,

Many thanks for yet another month of great insights and fascinating conversation on the topic of nationalism. This month's question on the links between gender and nationalism raised some really interesting issues, particularly relating to identity and participation. It seems that across contexts women play a key symbolic role in the construction of nationalism, but are often systematically excluded from activism and implementation of nationalist structures. Whether in the anti-colonial context or in the context of ideas of racial and national supremacy, women have been used symbolically to represent race and nation. In the far-right context specifically, women are adorned with an almost spiritual significance, and their role as 'producers of the race' is mobilized in order to place them on a symbolic pedestal. However, this same rhetoric is used to justify the limitation and occasional prohibition of women's activism within nationalist movements, entrenching gendered segregation and the patriarchal nature of these movements and organizations, and female participation is often entirely conditional on motherhood. Our contributors have demonstrated the similar trends that occur within specifically West African nationalisms, highlighting the ways in which women play a key symbolic role, but are often discriminated against and prevented from engaging at the political or even social level. However, we have also seen the ways in which women have been able to mobilize their symbolic role as a way of gaining socio-political influence. By leveraging restrictive gender norms and tapping into gendered social anxieties, as well as utilizing and mobilizing this imposed perception of spiritual femininity, women have been able to effect lasting socio-political change in a variety of contexts.

It is clear that this is a quickly growing field and a lot of great work is being done on the links between gender and nationalisms around the world. If you would still like to contribute please do so this week. This is a broad and multi-faceted topic, and I am sure that a lot remains to be said. On Thursday we will be launching our November issue of QOTM, so if you have any insights or opinions on gender and nationalism please do submit before then!

Best wishes,

Simon Purdue
Editor, H-Nationalism's Question of the Month

I have read this thread with great interest. The findings you discuss here on gender and nationalism are the same as my research on gender and nationalism among Central European Jewish women and Jewish nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century. My forthcoming book published by Bloomsbury Academic Press and due out at the end of the year is titled Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation: Women in the Art of Ephraim Moses Lilien at the German Fin de Siècle.

In Central European Jewish visual culture, for instance there was the creation (by the artist Ephraim Moses Lilien) of a woman who represented the new and upcoming Jewish nation. She looked similar to pre-Raphaelites images of women with long flowing hair, albeit with the symbol of the Magen David (Star of David) covering her dress. Yet as your paragraph also states, conservative and patriarchal attitudes to women also stopped many German-speaking Jewish women from being more actively involved in the Zionist cause. Or at least the male leaders of Zionism relegated them to three major areas (specifically for educated middle class women): the private realms of domesticity and home; education of the children and doing good deeds or social welfare work with poor mothers and babies outside the home. These ideas are very similar to similar conservative attitudes among German (male) nationalists when thinking about women’s roles in the then emerging German nationalist movement.

Independent Educator, Historian, and Curator

Honorary Research Associate
Department of History
M:+61 407 275 559